“We hope this discovery helps contribute to an element of closure for the extended families of the lost in Ironton and the communities affected by their loss,” Ballard said. “The Ironton is another piece of the puzzle to Alpena’s fascinating place in American commercial history,” while the Thunder Bay sanctuary “continues to reveal lost chapters of maritime history.”
Nearly 200 shipwrecks are believed to rest within or near the boundaries of the sanctuary, which includes the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena and some 4,300 square miles of northwestern Lake Huron.
Various factors made the area a «shipwreck alley» for more than two centuries, until modern navigation and weather forecasting reduced the danger, said Stephanie Gandulla, the sanctuary’s resource protection coordinator.
The late 1800s were a busy period for Great Lakes trade. Thousands of schooners, or sailing ships, and hundreds of steamboats carried cargo and passengers between bustling port cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland.
The sanctuary area was something like a sea road cloverleaf. The ships sailed to and from Lake Huron and Lake Michigan through the nearby Strait of Mackinac. Others headed north to Lake Superior, seeking iron ore for steel mills at mines in Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“It’s where the up and down shipping intersected,” Gray said. “Busy intersections are where most accidents happen.”
The weather was notoriously unstable: dense fog, sudden thunderstorms. Islands and submerged reefs lurked.
On the fateful night, the Ironton and another schooner, the Moonlight, were being towed north from the Lake Erie town of Ashtabula, Ohio, by a steamboat, a common practice then, much like the locomotive. of a train pulls freight wagons. a railroad They were headed for Marquette, a port city on Lake Superior.
The steamer broke up in rough seas off Lake Huron around 12:30 a.m. on the morning of September 26. The Ironton and Moonlight disconnected their tow lines and separated, with the Ironton’s crew setting sail and starting her engine. She veered off course and collided with the Ohio, a freighter loaded with 1,000 tons of flour, about 10 miles from Presque Isle, Michigan.
The Ohio soon sank, her crew of 16 being rescued by the Moonlight. The Ironton stayed afloat for over an hour before sinking.